The Poppy and a Call to Love

The poppy has long been a person symbol for me. Interestingly perhaps, not in conjunction with Remembrance Day or the ‘poppy poem’ specifically. But if I think about it, there is a connection.

I first saw poppies in my mother’s English garden that was stuffed with tall bush-like flowers – bleeding hearts, flocks, rudbeckia and poppies. The soft terra cotta petals flapped in the breeze and the entire cluster swayed on strong, slender stems. Later I noticed them in impressionist paintings of the French countryside – fields of poppies with a warm yellow-stone cottage behind. I found them exquisitely lyrical, Romantic with a capital R. They spoke to me of the longing for a more pastoral life.

When I was fourteen, my family and I were driving through exactly such a setting on a trip through Provence. All at once, as we were about to pass it by, I called out from the back seat for my father to stop the car. I wanted to run through the poppy field. This was not such an unusual request in my family. My father read Proust. My mother was a language teacher and literature buff. They were also in favour of retreating to the country for months at a time. And so, my father pulled over and l jumped out of the car and flung myself across a huge ditch onto the edge of the field.

Almost immediately I discovered that my idea of running through the field was more symbolic that realistic. Perhaps it was the time of year. There were large, dry clumps of mud that made it almost impossible to walk even, and the grasses that played host to the flowers were so dense and tall I decided to simply look into the floppy depths of the flower, at its dark textured centre. But I had so much wanted to run, freely and with abandon.

As an adult during visualization meditations I have often brought to mind the image of the poppy and the ideal of freedom: freedom from convention, freedom to be oneself. And yet, I was aware that we often confuse freedom with independence or isolationism, from the free nation to the hermit in the cave. But getting right down to it, the poppy grows in large clusters of plants. They grow wild, but in communities and in amongst other crops. They understand the lack of independent existence. The worldly experience is one of enmeshment. And within this enmeshment we thrive.

In my final year of university, one of the few books I had time to read (every night in fact) was Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. No matter how challenging the multiple essays all due the same week, no matter how intense the fear and unknowing of what the future held after leaving the safety of the university walls, I could always find respite in the author’s credo: share, look, and “when you go out into the world its best to hold hands and stick together”.

This is the freedom of the poppy – to seek the sun, and allow its artfully crimped petals to blow in the wind, while holding firm to the earth and the cluster. It is the rootedness that allows us to rise in freedom, the strong community of nations that affords us true peace.

I have been reflecting on this today: holding hands, we go out in the world together, known, seen, accepted by our tribe of friends, family and neighbours with all our idiosyncratic ways. And as we feel rooted, then we are able very organically to extend that deep sharing and the gift of presence. We say it often enough – most people just want to be loved, to be understood and appreciated. How do we as a community accomplish this. To share, look and spend time together.

Remembrance Day at my children’s public school is a very moving tribute to this coming together for a certain ritual – the moment of silence – to experience something together. It is a rare occurrence in our society of individualism and decreasing participation in religious and community institutions. But maybe this is causing a growing consciousness of how we connect with one another, and watch out for ageing neighbours. How do we create space to just be with someone. Here are some crib notes I’ve made for myself:

  •  Stop and take notice when something strikes you as notable for any reason. Take time for a breath and to really experience it: whether it is a garden well tended, a kind word, or a sign that someone is reaching out for support.
  • Look someone in the eyes when they are talking to you, breathe and listen without prescripting a response.
  • Reach out and touch someone. In the ‘north’ we are often hesitant about touching other people – hug friends and family a moment longer than you normally do; touch a friend on the arm in greeting; hold hands more, find time to squeeze and cuddle the kids.
  • Let someone know you appreciate them for the everyday things they do and the ways they show up in life. It is not in the extraordinary that we are special, but in the small ways of being that we live day to day.
  • Find ways of participating in the community whether it is joining together for a raking or shoveling party on the street, hosting a potluck or going to a service at a school, church or community centre, or a local art event.
  • Be brave: even if you have no one to go with, reach out, attend. You will be surprised how receptive people are when someone shows up to an event on their own.
  • Love is not just a type of relationship, it is a way of being in the world. When we can find our roots in life, we can blossom forth in love both for ourselves, for others, animals and the natural world. Love is a response to life which we sometimes fear and stifle. Root down and blossom in love.

Communities

Knight

I spend a lot of time thinking about and participating in various communities. Every once in a while I feel a big push to re-evaluate how I help cultivate a sense of community.

Today the kids and I stopped in a coffee shop on the way home from their music classes. We always feel a little more buoyant after singing together with the other toddlers and preschoolers. Mark plays his guitar, and the kids sway to the music; mostly actually it is the parents and caregivers who sing. My response to it reminds me of the research into oxytocin and its role in group bonding. Apparently singing in groups causes a release of oxytocin and therefore often causes us to feel bonded and connected with the rest of the group, like when newborn babies and mothers bond after birth. Perhaps this explains the appeal of group singing, and other cooperative musical activities throughout the ages, and now: everything from choir groups and glee clubs to kiirtan groups. In the back of my mind instead of my mantra I’m hearing:

“The grand old duke of York, he had 10,000 men…”.

Two ladies who were sitting near us stand up to go and I catch the phrase, “There’s not as much of a sense of community here.”  Soon a Turkish ESL student who is doing some homework stands up and comes to ask me how to spell ‘aloud’; then ‘mention’; then several other words including ‘depression’ and ‘embarrassed’.

“He marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again…”

I feel an organic sense of community here; that I exist amongst others. That we are going about our day flung together for a few moments. When I am present to them, these moments are pregnant with meaning. They give meaning and texture to the now.

“And when they were up, they were up…”

We live in a dynamic city with incredible infrastructure for community – there are community centres, libraries, museums, YMCAs, mom’s groups, public schools. In some societies there are no such elaborate infrastructures to foster community, especially for mothers at home. Here in Toronto we are not living on a farm in midwinter, a long way off from the next neighbour. And yet, often there is the complaint, or sensation that we lack community. I have heard it, and felt it.

“And when they were down, they were down…”

I belong to a mom’s group that is discussion-based, and lecturers come in to facilitate each week – members of the community. We use a church parlour, and there is very cheap baby-sitting in the gym and room next door. We have also play groups and book clubs and socials that are organized through the group. There are charity drives, helping hands for new mothers. It is organized all very organically through a board. Very effective and supportive for women and families, and yet the work that goes into such grassroots organizations is under-recognized and under-valued by the wider society.

It strikes me that motherhood has created in me a more organic relationship to my local community. Whenever I walk down the street, I bump into moms, dads and caregivers I know from various activities or schools. I exist within the community moment-to-moment, person-to-person as a mom, as a neighbour, as a community centre participant. I do not do anything to be accepted within this local community. My presence here automatically makes me a member. I do not do anything to be accepted within the mom’s group – I show up and take my place as one of the mothers.

Ironically this is something other organizations or intentional groups strive greatly to try to achieve! This bonding through situational reality reminds me of experiences I have had in the expat community as an ESL teacher, or foreign student. I was thrown into a micro-community with other short-term foreign residents, and quite often made fast friends with a very diverse group of people.

In other settings, I’ve heard and felt the complaint that communities only work if we ‘gel’, if we have something in common, or if we feeeeeel connected to the other members – if there is some kind of mutual spark. Certainly we have all experienced this kind of magic. A friendship that just appears in our lives full blown, and lasts effortlessly (or seemingly so). But, what would happen if we were trapped in a mine with 12 others for 3 months? What would happen if we lived in a very small town, or were thrown together with an unlikely group of expats? As I have experienced, we would begin to relate to each other as human beings. We would find the human connections. A la Breakfast Club, we would begin to share intimacies, and long lasting bonds would likely develop through shared experience.

“And when their were only half way up, they were neither up nor down!”.

In yoga we speak about oneness, and about contentment that is beyond happiness or sadness, craving or aversion. We speak about being in the moment as it is. And we also speak about dharma – life’s purpose. I wonder often about my purpose and my presence within the various communities I am a part of or have spear-headed. I have seen kiirtan groups come and go; I have strived to create long lasting, authentic relationships with groups of yogis. I have witnessed the efforts of others to bring people together in some sort of yoga initiative. So much striving, and yet, we are often quite naturally a part of communities that we neglect or disregard the importance of.

Sometimes it arises that people are looking for a charismatic leader to bring them together, like a guru. There is no doubt that a guru can crystalize the efforts of a community for a while, and create an incredible synergy. But it takes often only the passing of this person to dissolve such communities.

I read an article about authentic leadership in one of the last issues of Ascent Magazine, and in it one of the writers reflected on the idea that if the Buddha were to come again, he would come as a community. As we go through the growing pains of transitioning between spiritual communities crystalized by one magnanimous leader, to collectives or equalateral, participatory groups, it seems to me that we need to value the organic nature of communities; that their intensity and focus comes and goes with time and situation of the members (somewhat like the mom’s group), and that they are constantly evolving and changing. Here too, we cannot grab on and expect changeless stability.

I would like to put it out there that perhaps the onus is on us to be mindful of the micro-commuities we are a part of every day, and the intentional communities we would like to be more richly and authentically engaged in. The mindful presence, the appreciation of each community interaction, the savouring of organic communities that support us in the different stages of our lives – are these the keys to greater satisfaction and a greater sense of community?

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